Top 20 Albums of the 1980s

Posted: December 3, 2012 in Uncategorized
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This is the third entry in a five-part series that will take us through the 2000s. As with the previous lists, I limited myself to no more than two albums from any one artist (although that wouldn’t have been an issue here anyway), and I didn’t include live albums. If you missed the series’ first two installments, here is the 1960s list and the 1970s list.

Before we get started, I’ll address the most notable omission — Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It’s the best-selling album of all-time, but honestly, I can’t get through it without losing interest. “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” are both great, and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and “Baby Be Mine” are both pretty good, but the other five songs just feel like filler to me. “The Girl is Mine” and the title track are downright terrible. So, apologies to any MJ fans reading this, but I’ve just never heard anything special here.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to the albums that did make the cut.

Honorable Mentions
Beastie Boys- Licensed to Ill (1986)
Dinosaur Jr.- You’re Living All Over Me (1987)
Neil Young- Freedom (1989)
Pixies- Surfer Rosa (1988)
X- Wild Gift (1981)

20. AC/DC- Back in Black (1980)
AC/DC are basically a one-trick pony, and they didn’t really bring anything new to rock and roll, but they did straightforward hard rock really well, which is probably why they sold so many records. Back in Black, their first album following the death of original lead singer Bon Scott, is without question their best. “Hells Bells,” “Shoot to Thrill,” “Back in Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” are four of their best songs, and everything else here fits in seamlessly. Angus and Malcolm Young’s riffs are the album’s driving force.

19. Elvis Costello- Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Costello had already experimented with rock and roll, punk, soul and country by this point. While Imperial Bedroom includes a little bit of everything, at its core it is a pop album. It captured Costello at his most melodic, but it also features some of the most complex arrangements of his career. “Beyond Belief” and “Tears Before Bedtime” make for a great start, and “Man Out of Time,” “The Loved Ones” and “Human Hands” stand out as personal favorites as well. Piano is a prominent instrument here, and Costello’s wordplay is excellent as always.

18. U2- War (1983)
U2’s first two albums were OK, but War was when they really arrived. It’s one of their hardest rocking albums, and it’s also one of their most passionate. Here, Bono really finds himself as both a singer and a songwriter. Most of the songs deal with — you guessed it — war, starting with the emotional “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” “New Year’s Day,” “Like a Song,” “Two Hearts Beat as One” and “40” are all great as well. This album dealt with real problems, but as Rolling Stone noted in its original review, “U2 don’t pretend to have the answers to the world’s troubles.”

17. The Pretenders- Learning to Crawl (1984)
The Pretenders’ first album is generally regarded as their magnum opus, but I actually like this one even more. Drug use nearly destroyed the band, as guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon both died of overdoses within 10 months of each other in 1982 and 1983. Instead, Chrissie Hynde found replacements and made a masterpiece. “Middle of the Road” proved The Pretenders could still rock, “Back on the Chain Gang” paid tribute to Honeyman-Scott and Farndon, “My City Was Gone” showed Hynde could write social commentary, and “2000 Miles” is a touching Christmas song (sounds corny, but it’s not).

16. R.E.M.- Document (1987)
R.E.M. had made great music and earned critical acclaim before Document, but this was the album that brought them to the mainstream. In typical R.E.M. fashion, they made the breakthrough doing things their way. The music was catchy, but the lyrics were political and bleak. “The One I Love” became a surprising top-10 hit and is often misinterpreted as a love song, but it actually features dark lyrics about using someone (“a simple prop, to occupy my time”). “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” is a great apocalyptic rant. “Welcome to the Occupation,” “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Disturbance at the Heron House” are other personal favorites, but every song is good.

15. Guns N’ Roses- Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Mainstream rock went to hell in a handbasket in the 80s, as awful, unoriginal hair bands like Bon Jovi, Poison and Motley Crue rose to prominence. Then Guns N’ Roses arrived in 1987 and put those guys to shame. They were harder, meaner, more talented, and even more popular. “Welcome to the Jungle” punches you in the mouth right off the bat, and the album never really lets up. Other highlights include “Mr. Brownstone,” “Paradise City” and the surprisingly sincere “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” My only quibble is that the chauvinism sometimes becomes unbearable. But it’s Guns N’ Roses, so you pretty much have to expect that.

14. Bruce Springsteen- Nebraska (1982)
This is one of the bleakest albums ever made. There’s no E Street Band here — just a depressed Springsteen, his guitar and his harmonica. The songs are about people who are desperate and defeated. Unlike previous Springsteen albums, Nebraska provides no optimism. The title track is about a mass murderer who feels no remorse. “Atlantic City” is about a man who goes into organized crime to pay off his debts. “Johnny 99” is about a guy who loses his job, kills a night clerk and begs to be executed during his trial. “My Father’s House” sees a man try to reconcile with his father, only to realize that it’s too late and his father is gone. The closer “Reason to Believe” sums up the whole album — Springsteen sees all this bad happening and wonders how people can still be believers.

13. The Replacements- Let It Be (1984)
The Replacements already had a nice following before Let It Be, but this was the album that made them underground stars. It incorporated hard rock, classic rock and punk, as well as pop hooks and even a couple ballads. “I Will Dare” and “Favorite Thing” provide a great opening that perfectly captures The Replacements’ sound. “We’re Comin’ Out” and the cover of Kiss’ “Black Diamond” are two of their hardest rockers. “Androgynous,” “Unsatisfied” and “Sixteen Blue” show Paul Westerberg’s more vulnerable side. I’m not a huge fan of the silly lyrics on “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “Answering Machine,” but I can at least get lost in the music on those tracks.

12. Talking Heads- Remain in Light (1980)
There really isn’t any other band that has ever sounded like Talking Heads. They blended punk, funk, dance and world music (among other influences) into a sound that has been imitated by many but never matched. Remain in Light, which incorporated a lot of African rhythms, is their best album in my opinion. “Once in a Lifetime,” with its infectious chorus, is arguably the best song they ever made. It also gave us one of the most ridiculous music videos of all-time. “Crosseyed and Painless,” “The Great Curve” and “Houses in Motions” are other personal favorites.

11. The Smiths- The Queen Is Dead (1986)
The Smiths were a lot more popular in their native UK than the US, but this album is great in any country. It’s full of guitar-driven pop-rock and lyrics that are sometimes funny, sometimes serious and always clever. The title track and “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” get the album off to a good start, and “Cemetry Gates” (sic) and “Bigmouth Strikes Again” are highlights at its center. But the album’s two best songs come in the second half in the form of “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

10. Beastie Boys- Paul’s Boutique (1989)
Licensed to Ill may have been more popular and more fun, but Paul’s Boutique was the Beastie Boys’ true masterpiece. Even for someone who isn’t a big fan of sampling, like myself, you can’t help but be blown away by the sheer volume and complexity of the samples on this album. Some of the songs sample upwards of a dozen songs. “The Sounds of Science” samples five different Beatles songs alone. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” — arguably the Beasties’ crowning achievement — samples everything from Johnny Cash to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix to The Isley Brothers, Chic and Kool & the Gang. On top of the incredible beats created by this sampling, the lyrics are the Beasties’ best — they actually tell stories, without sacrificing the group’s trademark humor.

9. X- Los Angeles (1980)
A lot of punk bands in the late 70s and early 80s were more about attitude than music. X had both. Los Angeles, their debut album, had a distinctly punk sound, but it was a more melodic punk. And because songwriters John Doe and Exene Cervenka had both been working as poets before starting a band, the lyrics were much better than your average punk lyrics as well. Ray Manzarek of The Doors produced the album and played keyboard on several tracks, and X paid tribute with a kick-ass cover of “Soul Kitchen.” Other highlights include “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not,” “Johny Hit and Run Paulene,” “Nausea” and “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss.”

8. Pixies- Doolittle (1989)
The Pixies’ first album, Surfer Rosa, was great, but Doolittle was more polished and featured a more diverse sound. “Wave of Mutilation,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and especially “Here Comes Your Man” were as close to pop as you’ll get from the Pixies. “I Bleed,” “La La Love You” and “Silver” are all slower songs as well. There’s still plenty of harder rock here, too. Opener “Debaser” kicks ass from start to finish, while “Tame” and “Gouge Away” feature their trademark quiet-loud dynamic that became a huge influence on the grunge movement of the early 90s. The lyrics range from serious topics like environmentalism (“Monkey Gone to Heaven”) to weirdness like slicing up eyeballs (“Debaser”) and driving into the ocean (“Wave of Mutilation”).

7. R.E.M.- Murmur (1983)
Murmur, R.E.M.’s debut album, is credited with launching the college rock movement, which it did, but it’s really just as much a pop album as an alternative rock album. The guitar was catchy and jangly and absolutely deserving of the comparisons to The Byrds. Most of the songs are upbeat, or at least build to upbeat choruses. The only exceptions are the lovely ballad “Perfect Circle” and the murkier “9-9” and “West of the Fields.” “Radio Free Europe” and “Pilgrimage” make for an excellent opening, while “Talk About the Passion,” “Catapult” and “Shaking Through” stand out as highlights as well. It’s ironic that some people accused R.E.M. of selling out in the early 90s when they shifted from harder rock back to pop, because their very first album was essentially pop.

6. The Replacements- Tim (1985)
Tim was The Replacements’ first major label release, and it featured a more polished sound than its predecessors. Perhaps more importantly, it featured more mature songwriting. Paul Westerberg delved deeper into themes like alienation and growing up, and he cut out the joke songs and throwaway lyrics. “Bastards of Young” and the college radio tribute “Left of the Dial” are two of The Replacements’ greatest songs. “Swingin’ Party” and “Here Comes a Regular” are two of their best slower songs. “Dose of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown” break out the punk, while “Waitress in the Sky” sets bitterness to a fun, acoustic melody. “Hold My Life” and “Little Mascara” are both typical Replacement songs that are very good as well. Tim might not feature quite as much energy as Let It Be, but the better songwriting and lack of down moments make it a better album.

5. Sonic Youth- Daydream Nation (1988)
It’s probably too simplistic to call Daydream Nation the soundtrack of the alternative and indie rock movements, but in so many ways that’s exactly what it is. It took all the elements of the underground scene at the time — hard rock, punk, art rock, noise rock — and combined them into a sound that became the basis for so many alternative bands over the next 24 years (and probably well beyond). It all starts with “Teen Age Riot,” which for my money is the greatest alternative rock anthem ever made (yes, even ahead of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). The energy never lets up. “Cross the Breeze” and “Total Trash” are both seven-plus minutes of greatness, while “Silver Rocket,” “Eric’s Trip,” “Hey Joni” and “Candle” are all highlights as well.

4. Bruce Springsteen- Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
I used to write this off as Springsteen’s sellout album. Then I realized how stupid that was. Yes, Springsteen made a concerted effort to make the most accessible album of his career. But the music and lyrics are still great. The songs are still about people who are struggling, continuing the theme of previous albums, but the music is more upbeat and more hope is provided. Paste probably puts it best — “he reconciled the romanticism of his 1973-77 work with the darkness of his 1978-82 work.” The album produced a record-tying seven top-10 hits, led by “Dancing in the Dark,” “Cover Me,” “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Glory Days.” But the songs that weren’t hits are just as great as the ones that were. “Darlington County,” “Downbound Train” and “No Surrender” are among the best on the album.

3. Paul Simon- Graceland (1986)
By 1986, Simon had already been an established pop star for 21 years and 10 albums. But Graceland was the best album he ever made, even better than Bridge Over Troubled Water. Here, Simon found the perfect mix of world music and pop. He recorded the album in South Africa with dozens of local black musicians, defying the country’s pro-apartheid government. While the background and aftermath make for great stories, the music speaks for itself. The first two songs — “The Boy in the Bubble” and the title track — are two of the best songs Simon ever wrote. “You Can Call Me Al” is probably the most well-known song here, thanks in part to its music video featuring Chevy Chase. “Gumboots,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “Crazy Love, Vol. II” and “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” are great as well.

2. U2- The Joshua Tree (1987)
This is U2’s most popular album, and it’s also their best. The songs are about Bono’s experiences with America, and how the America he saw wasn’t the same as the America everyone reads about. But thanks to the desperation in Bono’s voice, this album sounds like it could be about anyone who’s struggling to find something to believe in. The first three songs — “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You” — all became massive hits, and all rank among U2’s best songs. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that the second half of the album is just as great as the first half. “In God’s Country,” “One Tree Hill” and especially “Red Hill Mining Town” are all fantastic.

1. Prince- Purple Rain (1984)
Prince made plenty of good music, but Purple Rain is without question his best album. His funk and dance influences were still present, but here he also showed off his guitar skills and added more rock, aided by the addition of The Revolution. The change is evident right off the bat with “Let’s Go Crazy,” the hardest rocker Prince ever made. That’s followed by the lovely duet “Take Me With U” and the heartbreaking ballad “The Beautiful Ones.” “When Doves Cry” is Prince’s biggest hit and one of his best songs, and “Baby I’m a Star” is great as well. But the biggest highlight is the epic title track, which closes out the album. Both the vocals and the guitar are Prince at his very best, and Prince at his very best was arguably the best thing ’80s music had going.

  1. Wow. Great job Scott! I’m glad to see you included plenty of U2, Pixies and REM and some great Replacements albums. I too am a major Mats fan, so much so that I put a detailed exploration of album cover of Let It Be into a key chapter into my novel, The Pursuit of Cool.

    We have weirdly similar musical tastes. Looking forward to more of your lists.

  2. […] I knew hockey season would cause a bit of a delay in putting this together, but I didn’t expect to have a six-month gap between my 1980s list and this one. I don’t want to delay any longer, so let’s just review the guidelines: no live albums, no compilations, no more than two albums from any one artist. I shouldn’t really need to explain this one, but Foo Fighters and Nirvana are obviously considered separate artists. If you missed any of the first three entries in this series, here they are: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. […]

  3. […] you missed any of the previous entries, check them out here: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, […]

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